Harp Restoration

The following article appeared in the September 1997 issue of the newsletter
of the UK Harp Association and is reproduced here with their permission.

Saved from the American Mirror

Richard Buswell

Necessity, they say is the mother of invention, and seldom has,
necessity spawned so much invention as the need to get a harp. My
daughter, Victoria had been playing a clarsach for a year, and
had got on so well that she was obviously soon going to
technically outgrow it - the dreaded words came from her teacher
"she is going to need a pedal harp soon".

Not that the prospect of having another harp was dreaded, it
was just that I had a shrewd idea what these things cost, and I
hadn't overestimated! After a bit of looking around, two choices
presented themselves - remortgage the house, or find a slightly
beat-up harp and renovate it. The latter wasn't such a daunting
prospect, because I had already made the clarsach and am a bit
handy with wood and machinery.

Finding a harp, even a non-runner turned out to be no trivial
task. We put adverts in the papers, including Wales, and phoned
round everyone to do with music and antiques in the Yellow Pages.
We did find a derelict Delveau at a ridiculous price, but it had
gone beyond repair. What was left was riddled with monster
woodworm holes!

After fully expecting an award from BT, someone told us of a
harp in an antique shop in Manchester. The instrument looked
promising: all the forks moved at least a bit with the pedals,
and there was no sign of woodworm. For all it was a bit knocked
about it had a very nice feel to it. The wood was light and
attractive and the soundboard was nicely ornamented. It was
obvious that something was not structurally right at the bottom,
and the mouldings were in a bad state: many bits were missing,
and all the gilded bits had been sprayed with gold paint that had
now gone brown. I hadn't heard of the make - Thomas Dodd and son
- so I went away to check it out. After consulting Grove's
dictionary and asking around it turned out that Dodd did a very
good copy of the Erard Grecian and this was it - circa 1860.

The asking price was still high, I thought, but the antique
man explained that the lower price limit was set by what
Americans would pay to make an ornamental mirror! A deal was
struck and the prized harp was carefully driven back home.

It was soon obvious what had happened - someone had fitted
steel strings (at that time I didn't know that 19th century
instruments were all gut), and the high tension had broken the
wooden base of the soundbox. The pillar had then pushed down onto
the pedal box and made it a very interesting wavy shape. Someone
had obviously tried quite hard to fix it, but had misunderstood
the forces involved and the repair could never have worked. (At
that point I assume the gold spray came out.)

Unusually, as it turned out, the harp still had its original
soundboard, which was all alright except for the bottom inch and
a half which had got splintered when the base parted. I resolved
to try and preserve as much of it as possible, though I wasn't
sure how. There were really two separate considerations: firstly
to repair the instrument and get it musically good; but also a
harp is not a small item, and it was obvious that it would have
to look presentable to live in the lounge, there was another
consideration - restoration.

I decided to restore the pedalbox and base of the pillar
first. That way, when the harp was re-assembled, if all was well
I wouldn't have to undo them again and could do all the other
restoration with the instrument in one piece.

The base of the soundbox was a basket case, so I took all the
bits of box off it and got a new base cut out of birch plywood by
a man with a bandsaw. The top of the box had been badly glued
where it had been split, so I had to re-break the joint and glue
it in the correct position.

The hardest part of the whole restoration turned out to be
restoring the look of the soundboard. It looked as though it had
been rubbed down with sandpaper in parts, which were erratically
lighter than the rest. I stripped all the varnish off (including
a lot of the dreaded gold spray), and tried with increasing
levels of frustration to touch out the light patches using
various concoctions of varnish and dye - none of which worked: in
every case I'd come back in a few minutes and the varnish had run
to an ugly line round the patch. Salvation came in the form of
water-colour - the board had been finished with gesso (which is a
mixture of chalk dust and glue and forms a very fine base for
paint or gilt work), and gesso takes water-colour like a dream. I
was able to paint up the board to my heart's content, picking out
the old pattern where bits of it had been chipped over the years.
I let in a new piece of wood at the bottom and hand painted in a
new pattern to cover the join. The result was better than I'd
dared hope.

The gold spray took lots of car-paint thinners to wash off and
then it was time to learn a new skill - mouldings and gilding.

The trick is to copy bits of moulding that exist, cast them in
plaster of Paris and stick them on the parts that are missing. I
got the ingredients at a knock-down price from a dental
suppliers, because they were past their sell-by date. The
alginate mould compound is great fun: it changes colour as you
mix it with water and gets to a gooey mass, then you have about
30 seconds to slap it on before it sets. The dental trade have
tuned it to set quickly because when you have a mouth full of the
stuff the natural reaction is to want to be sick!

My idea of sticking on big lumps of plaster turned out to be
naive - it is so brittle that the only way I found to work was to
cut the cast into bits and stick them on one at a time. A brush
over with gesso and finishing with fine sandpaper and your
repaired mouldings are ready for gilding.

Gilding isn't too bad, except that the raw material is, er...
worth its weight in gold! The first few times you handle the
stuff it either blows away or self-destructs by sticking on to
something where it won't come off. But that transformation from
rough plaster to celestial-looking gold makes you realise why the
alchemists had a thing about it.

Having now restored about half the harp it was time to put it
back together and see if it worked. Since the wooden base of the
soundbox had been split, I cut out a recess in the wood and had a
steel plate made to bolt to the wood. The pillar ring would then
bolt onto this plate. The pillar ring is a steel hoop that holds
the base of the pillar. All the force of the strings is
transmitted to the point where the ring joins the soundbox, so it
has to be strong, very strong - I later measured the string force
at about three quarters of a ton.

Having re-assembled the harp I started re-stringing it , aware
that the last time this harp had been under tension was probably
30 years earlier, so I took things very slowly. I kept my eye on
the previously-broken area at the base of the sound box, and then
to my horror noticed that the rib was arching up away from the
board in places; I had to inject wood glue in the cracks with a
hypodermic needle (try asking for that at the chemist!) and clamp
the rib with bolts through the string holes.

This drama over, I gradually pulled up the tension over about
10 days. The feeling was that the harp was slowly coming alive
again after years of being asleep. With all the pedals in
"flat" Victoria could play a few tunes, and we
anxiously waited to see what it would sound like. There were a
few buzzes from loose bits in the soundbox, but we were delighted
with what we heard. The harp had a rich resonant sound, yet clear
in the higher register - it was going to work.

Not that it was all plain sailing from then on - Victoria had
an audition with a local youth orchestra coming up, and 2 days
before, I noticed that the soundboard was splitting again at the
base! It turned out that the weakened base of the box was bending
excessively under the tension, so I spent an anxious weekend with
bolts and angle-iron strengthening things up inside the box. I
finished with 45 minutes to spare, bundled the harp and Victoria
into the car and arrived with the strings still falling in pitch
at an alarming rate, but she got the job.

The next things to do were to restore the neck and crown and
adjust all the semitone forks. The neck had had the gold paint
treatment, but it turned out that the wood underneath was very

The angel on the crown was something I had been dreading. I
had to give her new arms and wings, her nose was half gone and
there was a big hole where her stomach had been. I didn't think
the wings would be bad, but how to get arms? Idea one was to use
copies of small doll arms, but I discovered things like Barbie
don't have their limbs in proportion and we didn't find a doll
the right size anyway. The only option was to try another new
skill - carving. I measured up my wife's arms and scaled them
down to angel size, drew them on some wood and started to carve
away. I was surprised to find it quite easy - just take a bit off
here and there until they looked right - and I knew when they
looked right when I started to fancy them!! I made two arm/wing
assemblies and a stomach and stuck them on, did a nose job with a
fine paint-brush and gesso and we had an angel. I didn't know
what the original had looked like, but ours looked fine.

The final job was to adjust the action to get the pitches of
the semitones correct. These harps were made before Mr Whitworth
standardised the screw thread and as quite a lot of new forks and
pins had to be made, it took some time to find modern equivalent

Many times as I worked on the harp I wondered about the men
who had made it - I visualised them working, perhaps by gaslight
in their workshop in Berners Street. They had achieved such a
high quality of work with tools that we would now dismiss as
primitive. It was an instrument made when life was slower, there
was less compromise in the face of profit and competition. I
often wondered who had bought the harp - who had played it - it
would have some tale to tell of the last 150 years - and who had
broken it? Still if they hadn't broken it we wouldn't have it.

Three months after the audition the harp had its first public
performance in Vaughan-Williams's Fantasia on Greensleeves.
As the first rich chords rang out I felt an electric silence run
through the audience and then I knew it had all been worth it,
and I mused that necessity had certainly borne invention - and
one less American mirror.


The original base
...and new wings

The finished harp

Detail of the restored angel

If any readers have information relating to Dodd harps, or if
anyone needs information concerning spares please contact me at (44) 1695 726518 or


The author wishes to thank all those who helped in the project, especially: John Hoare at Pilgrim Harps,
Gaskell and Evans Engineering, Ian Docker, and Eira Lynn Jones

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